The girl was young, sixteen.
So was the boy.
The girl’s name was Eliza. Her hair was a wild mess of brown curls, and she liked bright colors and big earrings and chewing Doublemint gum.
The boy was Jimmy. He was a nice boy with greasy blond hair and unfortunate acne but a real easy smile.
Eliza sure liked that smile.
Her parents were on vacation, and she hated being left home alone. The house was big, but not showy. In the daytime, it was a familiar, cozy place to hang out. At night though, it was big enough that shadows and ghosts hid in corners and behind doors.
That was why she invited Jimmy over to stay the night. His presence and their laughter chased the shadows away.
She made dinner like a grown-up, and they watched MTV and laughed at things that weren’t funny. Then she said, “I know where the key to the liquor cabinet is,” and Jimmy sat up extra straight.
Eliza giggled as she poured the violet liquid into fancy glass goblets. They held their pinkies up as they drank and talked in bad British accents. She felt warm and shaky and still and then she noticed the pretty green glass wine jug was nearly empty.
Pop was going to kill her. She tried to think fast but her thoughts were slow. Up through the sludge in her mind came a light bulb.
Where was it? She knew it was somewhere in one of the drawers, and she searched frantically through twist-ties and folded pieces of paper and dried up ink pens. Finally! Three packets of grape flavored powder. Tearing them open, she dumped the contents into the big green jug and filled it up with tap water, right up to the skinny neck and then shoved the cork back in. Jimmy carried it carefully to the cabinet and when Eliza opened the door, he slid it back on the shelf they’d found it on.
He went back to the living room and watched Whitney Houston sing through the television static, and she went to the bathroom to fix her hair. She was young and excited and afraid and filled inside with a sort of wanting she couldn’t quite identify, though she recognized the dull ache in the pit of her stomach. Eliza fluffed her hair and pursed her lips at her reflection in the mirror. She knew she looked hot, but it was wasted on Jimmy because Jimmy was the kind of boy who liked other boys. She undid the top button of her shirt and reapplied some Cherry Sweetness lip gloss just in case it might help.
Eliza was not young anymore. She still liked bright colors but had quit wearing big earrings because the children liked to tug on them when she did. She’d gone over to Ma’s house to help her pack up Pop’s things for the Goodwill. He’d been gone nearly a year and Ma was finally ready to get the job done. They folded worn blue jeans and button-down Hawaiian shirts in silence while the children ran outside, screaming and laughing and tackling one another. Ma’s hair was silver and Eliza’s hair was tied up in a top-knot. She was too tired to mess with the long curls anymore. She was too tired for everything.
A rumbly, choppy sound was coming up the drive. Eliza looked at Ma, and Ma shrugged her shoulders. Together they leaned out the side door, watching the rusted red pickup truck as it rolled to a stop with a bang! and a puff of polluted smoke. A pair of long legs with busted up shoes hit the pavement.
It was Malto.
That wasn’t his real name, of course, but everyone had called him that for so long they’d forgotten what the other name was. He was younger than Eliza but looked older, with a craggy face and dull eyes. Ma could remember when he was just a little boy and his eyes would sparkle and happiness spread across his cheeks like two round cherries. His skin was dull and pockmarked now. He was exceptionally tall, tall enough that he could tell girls that weren’t so smart he was a stilt walker at the circus. He liked the kind of girls who believed him.
Malto was a drug addict.
He’d been an addict long enough that his addled personality – the jitteriness, the shifty eyes, the pacing – became the essence of who he was. Once, he’d been the kind of kid who proudly brought home good grades on his report card and got a crispy five-dollar bill for his effort.
Now his efforts went only toward scoring more coke and nobody gave him five dollars for doing that.
He’d been an addict long enough that nobody expected anything better from him anymore.
He smiled and waved as he walked closer to the door and for just a brief second he looked like himself, but then he was Malto again. Needed a place to stay the night, he said. Just passing through. Heard about a job up north he might like.
Ma’s shoulders drooped and she smiled a tired smile. “Come on in,” she said. “I’ve got room.”
They ate dinner at the table, the way adults do, and caught up on old things that had been talked about before. Eliza filled her van with sleepy children and headed home.
Ma went to bed early.
Malto thought how good it felt to sleep on a mattress, instead of his truck bed. And being Malto, he thought about that old liquor cabinet. He crept down in the darkness and found the key.
Eliza’s phone rang early that morning, before the sunrise had finished painting colors in the sky.
“Malto’s sick.” Ma said it fast and worried. “I think he’s alcohol poisoned. He got into the liquor cabinet last night.”
Eliza drove straight over to Ma’s, without even stopping to change out of her pajamas.
Malto had vomited all over Ma’s beige carpet. He lay next to the mess, his skin pale and pasty, his eyes closed.
Eliza grabbed the phone and dialed 911.
The pretty green glass jug of thirty-year-old Kool-Aid lay on its side, empty.